Policy: A Brief on What You Need To Know

See what I did there? (couldn’t help myself).

The policy field might appear the overly wonk-ish domain of Hard Social Science types who use lots of graphs. And in a way, it is. But it’s also a surprisingly good fit for historians, and most decidedly a field in which historically-minded thinkers can make a valuable contribution.

Here’s a summary (for now) overview:

What is policy, exactly?

Scope: non-profit, government, private sectors.

Fields: from education to environment and finance to foreign affairs.

Why Consider Policy? Because we’re already involved! Do you know about Historians On The Hill? This AHA initiative brings historians to Capitol Hill to speak to Congressional staffers, researchers, and think-tankers (sic) on pressing political issues ranging from ebola to the crisis in Ukraine.

You’ll find the videos on C-SPAN; notice the type of questions panelists are asking and answering to frame more presentist policy perspectives.

How Can Historians Contribute?

The questions that the discipline trains us to ask are not only crucial, they add much-needed perspective to policy work.

Origins: continuity and change –> What lessons can be gathered from past policy efforts; what analogies from the past can illuminate the present?

Context: structure and contingency –> How the policy fits: where does the proposed change fit into the trajectory that the sector is following (ex: higher education reform); which factors matter and how.

Nuance: multiplicity of analytical lenses –> for instance, how do prevailing understandings of (for ex) what higher education is and provides, of learning models, of “value” (social and economic), shape proposed measures?

Historians are also highly-trained at analysing a diversity of perspectives (which social groups would be affected, in what way, and how).

Factual correctness – it’s more than just nuance, but unfortunately sometimes needed.


History & Policy: A British-based site, but extremely helpful in demonstrating the links between the two fields.

More to come…


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